A warning issued by Air India on June 21 in which it asked its retired employees not to criticise the national carrier in the print and electronic media, social media and on social messaging apps is unprecedented, said senior airline personnel and its former employees.

The warning was issued through an office order signed by an executive director and approved by Air India’s chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani. The order said that those who violate these directives would be denied the post-retirement facilities that the company extends to them.

The order said:

“It has been noticed in the recent past that few retired personnel of Air India are tarnishing the image of the company by posting negative remarks about the company on social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp and also electronic and print media. It is unacceptable that a person who is availing post retirement facilities like passage, medical, etc from Air India talks against the company.

“Retired personnel may be requested to refrain from posting any negative statement about the company as mentioned above. Retire personnel who make such negative comments with the intention of tarnishing the image of the company will themselves be responsible for cessation of their post retirement facilities.”

Though Air India did not refer to any specific retired personnel in the order, senior airline officers who did not wish to be identified said that it was primarily targeted at two retired senior officers, who have been vocal in their criticism of the national carrier in the media and on social networking sites over the past 18 months.

“There are people who have spent more than two to three decades in Air India and held important positions but they did not raise any questions during their service period,” said Air India spokesperson Dhananjay Kumar, explaining why the order was issued. “But after retirement, they started defaming the national carrier.”

Depending on their years of service, retired Air India personnel receive several post-retirement facilities such as free air tickets to a number of domestic and international destinations in a year, as well as health-related benefits such as medical insurance and access to medical facilities run by the company.

Reason for gag

A senior Air India officer said that the friction between the management and the two former senior employees in question became evident in 2016 when Air India started promoting five of its subsidiaries. “The two retired personnel and another former officer whose service was terminated – he does not receive any post-retirement facilities – took to social media intensively to vent their ire,” said the officer. “They started the attack and many others followed them.”

The subsidiaries include Air India Engineering Services, Air India Transport Services, Airline Allied Services, Alliance Air and Air India Express.

“The retired officers would rant about corruption and faulty auditing with regard to the subsidiaries,” said the officer. “At one point their campaign got really aggressive and they also started sharing baseless information with journalists, instead of raising those issues with the airline.”

Another senior officer said that the friction between the management and the retired officers intensified after the Ravindra Gaikwad episode in March. Gaikwad, a Shiv Sena MP, hit an Air India employee with his slipper because he was upset he had not been given a seat in business class. The airline subsequently registered a complaint with the police against the first-time lawmaker and also blacklisted him from travelling in the national carrier.

“While Air India was going through a tough time dealing with the situation, the retired officials again took to social media to express how the airline was at fault in the entire episode,” said the officer. “This fanned the flames of the ongoing protest by supporters of the Shiv Sena [who were supporting party MP Gaikwad].”

The friction between the retired employees and the Air India management further intensified in May when talks about the airline’s privatisation – which employees unions in Air India are protesting against – were at its peak.

“One of the retired personnel again…went on to talk to media organisations about how the entire stake of Air India should be in private hands,” said an Air India employee associated with one of the active unions.

This is believed to be a reference to former Air India Executive Director Jitender Bhargava, who gave an interview to the Economic Times, which was published on June 21, the day Air India issued the gag order. In the interview, Bhargava recommended 100% privatisation of the airline.

“Post-retirement benefits are not bestowed on employees but earned by them,” said Bhargava, whose book The Descent of Air India was published three years ago. “Hence, they cannot be arbitrarily withdrawn.”

Bhargava refused to say if he felt that he was being targeted by the company.

A retired managing director of Air India who did not wish to be identified, said: “The airlines industry has always been very aggressive and most companies do not tolerate criticism. As far as the case of retired officials are concerned, there has always been a general rule that they would raise issues only with the company and not go public about them.”

The retired officer refrained from commenting on whether it was right or wrong for Air India to issue the order, but he did say it was an unprecedented move. “There can be substance in the criticism,” he said. “But it is also true that retired officials who had once held important positions are always taken seriously and they can approach the management instead of ranting in public.”